Ocean Explorer Robert Ballard

American Icons, Odd Jobs, On the Road, People, This Week in History, Travel Destinations
on June 13, 2012
©Sea Research Foundation Robert Ballard with his remotely operated ocean exploration vehicle <i>Hercules</i> on the deck of the <i>Nautilus</i> ship on the Aegean Sea

In his home office in rural Connecticut, Robert Ballard contemplates the scientific and historic discoveries that await voyagers combing the ocean floor while he maps modern-day explorations of uncharted waters.

“I find it odd that we went to the moon before we went to the largest geologic feature on the planet,” says Ballard, 69, who has dedicated his life to exploring the world’s final frontier—the 71 percent of the Earth that is underwater.

On his shelves are books about epic explorers such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his favorite, Capt. James Cook.

Like Ballard, these intrepid men traversed land and sea in search of the unknown.

“Cook was a true explorer,” Ballard says about the 18th-century British navigator, who developed detailed maps during three voyages to the Pacific Ocean. “There is a difference between an explorer and adventurer. An explorer keeps meticulous notes.”

Founder and president of the Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Conn. (pop. 4,205), Ballard is an oceanographer who has conducted more than 120 deep-sea expeditions and achieved numerous high-profile discoveries, including the wreckage of the R.M.S. Titanic, which capsized a century ago and was found in 1985; the World War II-era aircraft carrier USS Yorktown uncovered in 1998; and extraordinary underwater life forms in the Pacific Ocean that are reshaping our understanding of biology.

With each discovery, Ballard leaves the sites and their artifacts untouched to preserve both the history and science of the world’s oceans. The Titanic, for instance, is a memorial site and the resting place of 1,517 people who died in the 1912 tragedy, says Ballard, who advocates for international laws to protect such undersea history from treasure hunters and salvagers.

“The deep sea is the largest museum on Earth, but there is no lock on the door,” he says.

Channeling Captain Nemo
Born in Wichita, Kan., Ballard developed his love of the ocean when his family moved to the shores of San Diego, Calif., where he pored over Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne’s 1870 novel, and dreamed of being Captain Nemo, the book’s main character.

“[In San Diego], I had the Scripps Institution of Oceanography on my right and Naval Base San Diego on my left. I became an oceanographer and a naval officer,” recalls Ballard, who earned a doctorate in marine geology and geophysics from the University of Rhode Island, and eventually became a U.S. Naval Reserve commander.

As a young explorer, Ballard surveyed the sea through the window of a submarine in which he traveled five hours daily to and from the ocean floor, where the average depth is 12,000 feet. In 1969, while working as a liaison for the Navy at the Woods Hole (Mass.) Oceanographic Institution, he helped develop the first remotely operated vehicle (ROV), allowing him and his crew to explore the ocean more efficiently with cable-controlled cameras. The ROV eventually led him to the wreck of the Titanic and, in 1989, the World War II German battleship Bismarck.

Film recorded of the precise moment of the Titanic discovery is featured in a new exhibit at Mystic Aquarium.

“We want to inspire visitors, particularly young people, with the idea that you too can go there and make infinite discoveries in the deep ocean, which is what Dr. Ballard is all about,” said Peter Glankoff, executive vice president of the Sea Research Foundation, which oversees the aquarium and institute.

While the Titanic is his most famous find, Ballard considers natural hydrothermal vents uncovered in 1977 in the Galapagos Rift his most significant discovery. In complete darkness, giant tubeworms are living off the Earth’s internal heat rather than through photosynthesis. Before the discovery, scientists believed all organisms were dependent upon sunlight.

“Here is a whole new life system we had no idea existed,” he says. “It showed life could survive in extreme environments and opened up the probability of life elsewhere in the universe and in our solar system.”

While Ballard has a reputation for showmanship in the quietly methodical world of scientific research, his passion for discovery and record of success is undeniable.

“I have often said that working with Bob Ballard is like rubbing elbows with a force of nature. His enthusiasm, passion and charisma make him a unique quantity in the marine geoscience-ocean exploration education business,” says James A. Austin Jr., 60, a colleague and oceanographer at the University of Texas in Austin.

Going deep
Today, Ballard works in collaboration with the Institute for Exploration, the Ocean Exploration Trust, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. To plan expeditions for his Nautilus research vessel, he stares at the same map of the world that he has been studying for the last 35 years. “I am a geoscientist, and the Earth is not a random rock,” he says. “It is a live creature with behaviors. It has a method to its madness. I look at an area I don’t understand and go there.”

Much of his research is conducted through a large home computer screen that enables him to watch in real time as ROVs dispatched by his crew transmit video of aquatic life, shipwrecks, artifacts and the sea floor.

“My wife, Barbara, gives me an allowance of five weeks at sea a year, but because of our telepresense technology, I can still be there,” says Ballard, an adviser to the latest search for the plane wreckage of American aviator Amelia Earhart.

Motivated by sheer curiosity, Ballard says his greatest challenges are funding his expeditions and keeping people interested in the planet’s future. To share his knowledge and reverence for the ocean, Nautilus transmits live video to scientists, educators and schoolchildren worldwide.

His latest endeavor entails working with engineers to improve technology on floating instrument platforms, called “FLIP” boats, that he believes will enable colonization of the ocean. He marvels that his journey of discovery continues.

“A kid from Kansas can dream to be Captain Nemo,” he muses, “and actually pull it off.”